A minister may have been the one to link nurse pay to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but battle lines now seem to be well and truly drawn – at least in public – between the government and health sector unions.
In the immediate aftermath of the Royal College of Nursing strike ballot result, there seemed to be room for manoeuvre still and possibly an opportunity for a compromise or resolution.
“Any formal negotiations on pay between the two sides have failed to get underway”
The health secretary, Steve Barclay, said his “door was open” and an introductory meeting was reportedly held by him with the college and subsequently other unions.
Early in November, in the wake of the RCN ballot, I suggested that what happened next would be key.
There would be a short period of time where industrial action could be averted if serious negotiation was entered into in the right spirit, while the alternative was a long and potentially painful dispute over the winter.
However, it seems that, sadly, very little has in fact happened, with no urgency in the halls of power to address the issue, and we are now facing the latter alternative.
Any formal negotiations on pay between the two sides have failed to get underway and what we have are increasingly entrenched views being traded in the media.
More and more health unions are joining the RCN by announcing strike dates across England, Wales and Northern Ireland and Unison is set to reballot in trusts where the mandate was narrowly missed.
Therefore, the chance of an easy, grown-up end to the dispute seems to be disappearing fast, though it can be hard to square what is happening behind closed doors with the rhetoric aired in public.
The window was probably only ever a short one but, looking to Scotland, the opportunity does seem to have been taken, with most unions now consulting their members on the government’s “final offer” of an average 7.5% uplift. Several unions are, in fact, recommending that members accept the offer.
In contrast, no similar moves have been made by other UK governments, though ministers in Wales and Northern Ireland have claimed their hands are tied without more funding from Westminster.
Ministers including Mr Barclay have appeared on national media to reiterate their tropes about their regrets about the ballot results and that the pay levels requested by unions are “unaffordable”.
It is perhaps true that the college has backed itself into a corner by demanding a 5% increase on top of inflation, making a total of around 17%. Such an increase seems unlikely, whatever the colour of the political party in power. So, it remains to be seen what level the college is likely to accept and then have to ‘sell’ to its members. But, of course, it cannot do that without an offer on the table.
The government side, meanwhile, has clearly hardened its line and looks more and more likely to be willing to dig in for an unpleasant fight with NHS staff – plus teachers, postal workers and rail staff.
This week started with the quite frankly bizarre comments by Conservative Party chair Nadhim Zahawi, where he appeared to use Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “justification” for a below-inflation nurse pay rise.
During several TV interviews, he controversially urged nurses to call off upcoming strike action over pay and “send a very clear message” of unity to Russian president Vladimir Putin. All very strange.
Then on Wednesday, prime minister Rishi Sunak upped the ante and said he was working on “new tough laws” to protect people from strike disruption.
During PMQs, he told the Commons that if “union leaders continue to be unreasonable, then it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public”.
A bill has already been introduced to parliament that would ensure minimum service levels on transport networks during strikes, however, it is yet to be debated by MPs and peers.
Downing Street has, apparently, said the legislation would now be extended to other services but has not specified what these would be and given no timescale. Therefore, the threat is there but remains vague.
However, this is the kind of unhelpful fighting talk that feels like a resolution is further away than ever.
Meanwhile, the first RCN strike is set for next Thursday, 15 December, so we are entering the territory of extreme brinkmanship, if this first round of industrial action by nurses is to be averted. It seems unlikely and the next test for both sides will be seeing nurses on the picket line, and how the public responds and whether that leads to political pressure.
There is always hope of a solution, but only if the sides involved are willing to come to the table and negotiate seriously. Unfortunately, it feels very, very unlikely at the moment.